“Kill and scalp all, little and big…nits make lice.”—Colonel John M. Chivington

Before the Battle of Fort Washita came the Battle of Sand Creek—also known as The Sand Springs Massacre. (Colorado)
Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp, and that of another Cheyenne chief, White Antelope, were attacked and destroyed on a cold November dawn, 1864.  Although the camps flew an American flag alongside a white flag of truce, Colonel John Chivington, determined to further himself in the political arena of the day, ordered the Cheyennes annihilated.  “Take no prisoners,” he ordered, adding his own personal slogan, “…nits make lice.”

The encampment at Sand Creek consisted of about six hundred Indians—most of them, women and children.  As the first shots were fired by Chivington’s men, only about one hundred Cheyenne warriors ran out, up the creek bed from the ravine where they were camped, to defend the women and children.

Still, these warriors were able to hold Chivington’s troops at bay for over eight hours, allowing nearly five hundred Indians to escape—including Black Kettle.

Chivington boasted of killing six hundred; eye-witness testimony estimated the umber at less than two hundred.  Two-thirds of the dead were women and children.  White Antelope was one of the first killed, as he left his lodge, arms extended to show peace.

Black Kettle’s wife was shot.  As troopers neared, they shot her eight more times.  Black Kettle threw her over his shoulder and ran.  He later removed all nine bullets, and his wife lived.

A three-year-old toddler was not so lucky.  As he walked out to the dry creek bed, three troopers some seventy yards away took turns shooting at him.  The third one finally hit him, dropping the child where he stood.

Chivington received a hero’s welcome in Denver.  He and his men exhibited the corpses of the dead Cheyennes they had sexually mutilated and scalped to the cheering citizens of Denver.  It is believed that there has never been another battle in North America where more Indians have been slain.

Three years  later, a Congressional inquest labeled Chivington’s “battle” a massacre.

In 1867, Black Kettle was one of the signers of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (Kansas) in which the Cheyenne gave up their holdings along the Arkansas River for land on a reservation in what is now Oklahoma.

By the fall of 1868, Black Kettle and two thousand warriors settled near the Washita River in the southeastern part of Indian Territory.  Though the Treaty of Medicine Lodge promised specific supplies, the provisions never came.  Many of the Cheyenne joined a young warrior, Roman Nose, who had been leading a series of raids on farms and homesteads of white settlers.

Under General Philip Sheridan, three columns of troops launched a winter campaign against Cheyenne encampments.  The Seventh Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer, was selected to take the lead.

For four days, in a foot of fresh snowfall, Custer and his 800 men followed the tracks of a small raiding party through the continuing snowstorm.  The tracks led to the encampment on the Washita River.  Custer ordered the attack at dawn.

On November 27, 1868, nearly four years to the day after the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer’s troops charged.  Chief Black Kettle and his wife, Maiyuna, were shot dead on the banks of the Washita River, (Indian Territory), their bodies riddled with bullets.

“Both the chief and his wife fell at the riverbank, riddled with bullets,” one witness reported.  “The soldiers rode right over Black Kettle and his wife and their horse as they lay dead on the ground, and their bodies were all splashed with mud by the charging soldiers.”

Custer ordered the slaughter of the Indian pony and mule herd—over 800 animals.  The lodges of the encampment were burned along with the winter food supply.  At the threat of reinforcements from other Indian camps only a few miles away, Custer quickly retreated to Camp Supply with his hostages.

In the Battle of the Washita, though Custer claimed 100 Cheyenne fatalities, Indian accounts claim 11 warriors, and 19 women and children were killed.  More than 50 Cheyennes were captured—mainly women and children.

After this battle, most of the Cheyenne were convinced to accept reservation life.  On the Washita River, Chief Black Kettle’s vision of peace was crushed, along with the Cheyenne way of life.

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  1. I read these accounts and it always makes me sad. We do a pretty good job of decrying massacres in other countries but we still don’t do a very good job of acknowledging our own past.

    Peace, Julie

  2. I can’t figure out why, after all these centuries, we can’t find a way to get rid of war. What is it? What is in mankind (ironic word) that makes us always take up arms.

    Lamenting the past does no good, I suppose but I still look back on these things and wonder why couldn’t they have made peace? Was it just blood thirsty soldiers? Who could pull that trigger on a little child?

    The Civil War still stuns me. Yes the south wanted their slaves, more than that I guess they wanted to be free to make their own choices. But when the day came that they had to free their slaves or send their sons to war…how could they do it? How could they say, “Yes, this is worth risking my son’s life.”

    I’ve got a family member all read to head for Afghanistan with the army. I just HATE IT.

  3. This is unbelievable. I just take comfort in knowing those who participated in the massacres were held accountable in the afterlife. I really believe a person has to answer for what he did, especially crimes against man, after he dies. I wish we’d have learned something from history, but we’re still doing the same thing today. I don’t know if we’re simply arrogant or plain stupid.

  4. I’ve heard this history before and seen it in movies, Cheryl, but reading it again here just gives me chills. What the army did to those poor people is just unspeakable.

    Mary I share your views on war. Here in Utah they just executed a criminal who murdered three men. There were headlines about it for weeks. The man was a minor celebrity. I have mixed feelings about capital punishment, but what I don’t understand is how we can send decent young men and women overseas to die or come home forever scarred – no appeals, no hearings, no last minute commutations. It doesn’t make sense.

    Thanks, Cheryl, for a moving and thoughtful blog.

  5. What a trembly post, Cheryl. Horrific. I recall reading of the massacre at Sand Creek when I went through (with many tears) Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in college and never forgot it. This book is a must-read for every American. I re-read it when I can bear it.

    Indeed, thanks again for the reminder.

  6. I remember a scene from the classic mini-series Centennial, where the commander says the “nits make lice” thing when a cople cavalry try to save some Indian babies during a massacre. Still get chills.

  7. what awful people we often are
    it is really a terrible situation that the indians did not outnumber us and then in turn “impose” their peaceful and honorable lifestyle on us
    wouldn’t we have all been better off..what a different place the world would have been

    in my mind there is no reason in the world for any real man to shoot down children
    i take comfort in knowing that those cowards eventually got what was coming to them

  8. Too bad the Indians didn’t win. I’d much rather have their heritage than the Puritans.

  9. Out of respect to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, I am hopeful that all of us look at their side of the story. It differs from “white man” accounts in so many of the tomes, etc. that have been written.

    For example, while interviewing 13 Cheyenne and Arapaho people in one day for the award-winning documentary film, “The Sand Creek Massacre”, Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird (Whistling Eagle) Cometsevah told me that his great grandfather survived the massacre. His oral history says that over 400 hundred Cheyenne people were murdered at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. Chief Cometsevah would not take disagreement with that figure for an answer.

    So, we must show respect to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people by helping them tell their story.

  10. I’ve read accounts of these atrocities in both ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ and in Mari Sandoz’s ‘Crazy Horse’. It never gets any easier to think about. The most frightening thing to ponder is how easy it is for people to convince themselves that everyone of another race, religion or culture presents a danger to them.

  11. Many times over the years I have tried to understand the mindset of theses soldiers. I have read accounts and am amazed at the rationalizations so many used. It was murder. The army attacked under a flag of truce and murdered those unable to defend themselves. Bigoted savages is the only description that comes to mind. How can you fault someone for protecting their home and family? There is very little to be proud of in our dealings with the native population of this country.
    After reading some of the posts against war, I feel if more women were in positions of authority and influence, there would be much less strife in the world.
    Thanks for an informative post.

  12. Hi everyone! Thank you all so much for commenting on my post yesterday. I was on the road all day til about eight last night and just got into West Virginia a little while ago so we have not gotten our laptop set up here in the hotel yet Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who stopped
    by to read and comment!

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